Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey




login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

In the News

Remembering Senator Lautenberg: A Champion of Comprehensive Sexuality Education

June 10, 2013

Last week, New Jersey lost a great representative—and the United States lost a great statesman—Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. During his five terms, Senator Lautenberg courageously stood up to big business and supported legislation that improved all of our lives—from a ban on smoking on commercial airlines to support for motorcycle-helmet laws. We appreciate all of Senator Lautenberg’s hard work, but what we at Answer will remember him most for is his steadfast support of comprehensive sexuality education.

For years, Senator Lautenberg championed legislation that would help to ensure that young people receive age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality. In February, he and Senator Barbara Lee (D-CA) reintroduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which is an invaluable step in funding programs that are informed by research and based on best practices.

Senator Lautenberg was the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, and with age comes wisdom; he knew that if young people are to grow into healthy adults, they deserve access to the information and skills they need to make smart decisions about sexuality, both now and well into the future. We are grateful for Senator Lautenberg’s leadership and his unwavering belief in and respect for the rights of young people nationwide. We will truly miss him.

Could Sex Ed Prevent Another Steubenville?

April 2, 2013

As a parent of a boy, I understand how some people have found sympathy in their hearts for the boys convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH. I have to be honest, however—I have not. But I do feel strongly that what these boys did came from years of distorted cultural lessons about what it means to be a boy or man, and therefore the blame for what happened does not lie with them alone.

“Boys Will Be Boys” Hurts Us All

News coverage has posited that Steubenville was another case of “boys will be boys”—the collusive attitude that boys are uncontrollable, and therefore we should shake our heads with an appreciative smile and enjoy their rough-and-tumble way of figuring out the world.

But the typical “boys will be boys” attitude implies a passive acceptance that boys figure out on their own what it means to be male and behave accordingly. In reality, that’s not the case at all. Our culture proactively defines masculinity for boys and is deeply invested in creating so-called “real men.” Tragically, what our culture glorifies in masculinity leaves no room for teaching boys that being a “real man” means being a person of integrity who is respectful and kind. Masculinity is defined so narrowly that boys do not question whether their behavior is appropriate let alone abusive—especially when their peers are behaving the same way or cheering them on. We see this in bullying cases as well as sexual assault cases. Our culture is far more comfortable with a hyper-masculine “All American” boy who can hardly keep himself away from girls than a boy who is caring, respects boundaries or says he isn’t interested in having sex at the moment.

The Indoctrination of Boys Into Rape Culture

As the Steubenville case gained more national attention, strongly-worded messages and memes were posted on the Internet to protest rape and the attitudes that foster rape. These included, “Culture teaches women not to get raped, instead of teaching boys and men not to rape,”  “Don’t tell me how to dress, tell them not to rape” and “Real men don’t rape.” Yet what was also posted online were offensive images, such as a photograph of the Dos Equis beer’s “most interesting man in the world” character with the caption, “I don’t always rape your mom, but when I do, I don’t use a condom.” Stemming from historical, and relatively tame by comparison, insults about a person’s mother, these sentiments have morphed into abhorrent references about sexual assault.

Last year, Amazon’s UK division stocked t-shirts with the statements, “Keep calm and hit her,” “Keep calm and rape a lot,” and “Keep calm and rape me.” Although the site eventually took down the t-shirts, the fact that these t-shirts were created and posted for sale in the first place demonstrates how ubiquitous the  attitude that violence—and, in particular, violence against girls and women—is funny.  Now, I don’t think—as someone who is parenting a boy and has worked with many adolescent and teen boys-that boys are incapable of feeling sympathy and empathy. I think boys come into this world with great capacity for sensitivity and caring, and are then aggressively socialized away from having those feelings-that being emotionally intelligent is a female trait, and therefore a weakness. The result for boys is a disconnect between their actions and the consequences of those actions.

Trent Mays’ “apology” was a clear example of this:

“No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken.”

What is missing here is a pronoun. The photographs were not magically taken and forwarded on to others. I speculate that Mays apologized because he got in trouble and people were upset. But he did not acknowledge or own that he should not have done what he did; he should not have taken or forwarded the photographs. I also think that part of why he and Ma’lik were crying so hard in the courtroom was because they were genuinely confused by how what they did was wrong, and why what they tried to do to cover it up didn’t work. The lessons they’d received about male invincibility failed them, and the result was incomprehensible and devastating.

How Sexuality Education Can Help

Could sexuality education have prevented what happened in Steubenville?  No one knows for sure, especially in an abstinence-only-until-marriage state like Ohio where it’s highly unlikely any discussions relating to gender, gender roles and relationships would take place. But it’s not just Steubenville, and it’s not just Ohio.

Sexuality education certainly can help. But to be most effective, it must start early. Kindergarteners need to learn about maintaining and respecting others’ boundaries. Instead of just learning “no, go, tell” if they were to be touched inappropriately, children need to be clearly told, “And you should not do this to others, either.” Sexuality education in the first and second grades should include lessons about how boys and girls are similar and how they are different, and that no one has the right to put someone down for being different. Specifically, kids need to hear that it is OK if boys do not like sports and instead like music; if girls like sports instead of dolls and dresses. Sexuality education needs to extend into fourth and fifth grade with lessons about not just the physical, but also the emotional changes of puberty, which can be scary and overwhelming to boys as well as to girls. And sexuality education should continue on from there, getting into what is considered to be traditional lessons about pregnancy and STD prevention, as well as lessons about gender and relationships and much more, throughout middle and high school.

By and large, sexuality education nationwide still focuses on the needs of and issues relating to girls. This must change. Sexuality education needs to provide lessons that are designed for and include the realities that boys face, and it needs to be far more direct about how people can and should treat each other, regardless of gender. It needs to stop holding girls up to be the moral gatekeepers of their sexual interactions with others. It needs to be comprehensive in scope and must get the time in the curriculum that is required if we are hoping to change negative attitudes relating to gender and relationships. Finally, sexuality education must include training and education for parents and adult professionals who can play integral roles in ending the perpetration of gender role stereotypes and creating respectful boys and young men.

What happened in Steubenville happens far too frequently, in communities throughout the United States. It happens in urban settings, suburban settings and rural settings; it happens to girls, and it happens to boys. Incidents are reported, and they are covered up.

So Steubenville isn’t alone. Like Ma’lik and Trent, Steubenville just got caught. I hope that an enduring lesson from Steubenville is that more young people can and should have the courage to come forward. Only then will the groundswell of national motivation to end sexist attitudes and socially-endorsed misogyny continue to grow.

Talking With Your Kids About Sexuality: Not an Olympic Feat!

August 2, 2012

I have worked with thousands of parents over the years, many of whom try to find any excuse they can to not talk with their children about sexuality. As a sexuality educator who is also a parent, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum, finding teachable moments everywhere, relentlessly reinforcing information and values with my child.

So I was a little embarrassed to admit that it took me until the third day of the Olympic Games to realize how many teachable moments relating to sexuality there have been within both the Games and the accompanying media coverage. When you consider that sexuality is about far more than sexual behaviors-that it is about gender and gender roles, body image and self-esteem, sexual orientation and identity, and much more-opportunities for discussing sexuality are all over the Olympics. So I thought I’d offer a few examples and suggestions of how you  can take advantage of the many teachable moments that are sure to arise while watching the remainder of the Games:

Puberty

My soon-to-be-ten-year-old son is obsessed with puberty. He couldn’t be more excited, so anything he can link to what’s going to happen during puberty he will. As we watch the Games, he’s full of questions:

During synchronized diving: “Why does the one on the left have hair on his legs and the other doesn’t? Is he older than the other one? Does the other one shave his legs? Will I have to shave my legs in puberty?”

During women’s gymnastics: “She’s 15? She looks like she’s 12. She doesn’t have any, you know… OK… breasts….”

Behind all his questions is “What’s normal?” I didn’t need to know anything about these individual athletes to be able to respond; I didn’t need to know their true ages or shaving habits.  What he needed to hear was this: young people go through puberty at different rates; bodies can look totally different on people of the same age; and all of this is entirely normal.

Gender Roles

Already there have been gender role stereotypical moments, and moments that have decimated those stereotypes. They are all opportunities to talk with your child about perceptions they may have (or have heard expressed) about what boys or girls can do solely based on their gender. This is the first year that every single country represented has a female athlete, and that is worth highlighting. Perhaps you’d want to discuss why it took so long for that to happen, why it happened this year and why some people are not celebrating.

You may wish to discuss how, even in the Olympic Games, girls and women are still expected to pay attention to their overall appearance while boys and men are not. I purchased a magazine for my son that provided in-depth interviews with some of the athletes. Part of the coverage discussed the female athletes’ makeup tips, while coverage of the male athletes described their workout routines. The fact that female athletes are judged on appearance as well as ability is something that can and should be discussed with young people.

Body Image

Young people receive messages from their earliest ages about beauty, and research consistently shows that people who do not feel good about their bodies are much more likely to make poor sexual decisions. Olympic athletes would give regular runners who are in great shape inferiority complexes, never mind how we as civilians might respond! So here are a few things you can point out if your child comments on the athletes’ bodies:

  • Olympic athletes spend most of their days exercising and working on strengthening their bodies.
  • They need to eat really healthy and take care of themselves.
  • There are lots of different body types in the world. Most people do not look like these athletes, and that’s OK. Some other athletes don’t look like these athletes. Everyone is different, and it’s normal to be different.

Sexual Orientation and Relationships

The opening ceremony was a huge demonstration of pageantry and mixed media, including a part that combined live-action and video in which a broad array of couples were shown kissing. These went very quickly, but once your kids got beyond squealing “Lady and the Tramp!” and “Shrek and Fiona!” they may have also noticed interracial and interethnic couples, adults older than their 20s, as well as-for a few brief seconds-a kiss between two women. All of these are potential teachable moments.

The vast majority of relationships young people see in popular media are still people from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds. They are also between people of two different sexes in their 20s-to-30s. This video and performance represented the diversity that can be found in love relationships. Talk about it!

With a week and a half left in the Olympics, who knows what other opportunities for discussion will present themselves? But consider the values and lessons you’ve been imparting to your child(ren) already, and see whether you can find ways of using an event that has captured the attention of so many of our children as an excuse for starting new conversations and keeping them going well beyond the closing ceremonies.

Check out these additional resources for talking with your children about sexuality.

Answer Talks to The New York Times About Parents, Kids & Porn

May 11, 2012

pornI recently spoke with New York Times writer Amy O’Leary about parents, kids and porn. Porn is easily accessible online, and I’ve blogged in the past (”My Child Viewed Porn: Now What?”) about why a child might seek out porn and what parents or guardians can do when this happens. Porn isn’t going away, so it was great to see that the New York Times chose to cover this issue as well! Check out the articles below to find out more, including some additional advice I shared on five different scenarios in which parents spoke with their children who had stumbled upon online porn.

“How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography”

“Can Your Child Find Porn on Your Phone?”

“So How Do We Talk About This?”

New Research Blames Low-Income African American Women for Couples’ Contraceptive Choices

March 9, 2012

Recently, I was asked by a reporter to comment on a study titled, “Cash, Cars and Condoms: Economic Factors in Disadvantaged Adolescent Women’s Condom Use.” The purpose of the study was to “evaluate whether adolescent women who received economic benefits from their boyfriends were more likely never to use condoms.” My first question was, “Why is this question even being asked?” As I read the study, my questions grew-as did my dismay at reading this examination of girls’ condom use that asked no questions of the men whose penises would actually be covered by these condoms.

I do not think the reporter expected me to open up the can of evaluative whoop-ass I did on this study, so I wasn’t all that surprised when in the article my prolific rants were condensed down to a benign sentence or two admonishing the greater research community that more research needs to be done. There is much more to say about this new publication by respected researchers that yet again ends up blaming women for their male partners’ sexual behaviors and decision-making.

The researchers, who used data collected from African-American girls and women ages 15 to 21 living in a low-income area (we’ll come back to that in a sec), did indeed conclude that “adolescent women whose boyfriend is their primary source of spending money may not explicitly exchange risky sex for money, but their relationships may be implicitly transactional.”

Well, duh.

Is this conclusion truly publication-worthy? Of COURSE their relationships are transactional-every single relationship is transactional. And it doesn’t matter what one’s socioeconomic status or racial or ethnic background is; it doesn’t matter what the gender(s) of the partners in the relationship are. We all negotiate wants, needs and desires with our partners. We make choices based on what we have and do not have. We communicate well, we communicate poorly-and we make decisions with which some will agree and others will disagree.

The difference here, however, is that what was being examined was whether the male partners of these young women provided them with money. And right there you have a not-so-veiled statement: low-income, African-American girls are whores. Think I’m exaggerating? Just read the key words beneath the article’s abstract, which include “sexual behavior; safe sex; adolescent” and “prostitution.”

What if we took a look at a middle-income, white couple in their early thirties? One partner or spouse works outside of the home, and the other stays at home and raises their 2.5 children. This is a transactional relationship. In a male-female relationship, we will most likely see the male partner playing the breadwinner role and the female partner staying home-although this has been shifting more over the years with more stay-at-home dads. The choice of who will work and who will stay home is a transaction between the partners. It is one that involves and reflects, among other things, each partner’s capacity to earn money. Yet no one would look at the stay-at-home mom in this example who accepts money from her partner to run their home as being “paid” by her spouse, and certainly no one would imply that any stay-at-home mom is a prostitute.

What the results of this study communicate is, “if these poor, African-American adolescents didn’t rely on their boyfriends for money, maybe they’d make better decisions about their sexual health.” This is a useless conclusion in relationships that involve far more complex issues than whether a boyfriend has money or a car. It is an equally useless measurement of safer sex practices, because girls and women do not use latex condoms, their male partners do. But this is far from the only study that examines girls’ use of one of the only male contraceptive and safer sex methods. (”Women’s Condom Use Drops During First Year in College” is slated to be published in the next Journal of Sex Research.) Each study that does this renews the misplaced blame on girls and women for not being stronger in insisting that their male partners use condoms-instead of helping us reaffirm that both partners in a relationship have equal responsibility in determining how best to avoid an STD and/or pregnancy.

“Boys will be boys,” these studies imply. “How can we expect them to make such a difficult decision like using condoms? They think with their penises; they don’t actually have brains.” The messages are as offensive and degrading to boys and men as they are to girls and women. And as long as we continue to hold girls and women responsible for being the sexual and moral gatekeepers in their relationships with men we are putting an unfair burden on women and devaluing the capacity of men to be active participants in their relationships with women.

Those of us who actually work directly with young people know that myriad decisions relating to romantic and sexual relationships are often extremely complex. There are consequences for every single decision we make, some positive and some negative. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to be in a relationship and then to do everything they can to stay in that relationship-even if it is an unhealthy one. Girls are socialized from the youngest ages to please other people. These are lifelong messages they receive up until the day they find themselves in a sexual relationship with a partner. And at that point, we turn around and wag a judgmental finger at them when they make a choice they have had zero support in making? Even if they have had sexuality education courses, even if they have been with partners who used condoms in the past, each relationship is a new experience. And if a girl’s male partner doesn’t use condoms, perhaps we should be asking him “why not” instead of asking her why she wasn’t able to convince him to do so.

All that has been reinforced here is a judgment against the girls in these relationships that if they only chose better partners-those who, perhaps, didn’t have stronger earning potentials or didn’t have cars-they wouldn’t have made the poor choice to have sex with men who did not wear a condom. We don’t have any learning about how we can more effectively reach boys and young men, how we can help men and women communicate more openly and effectively about safer sex-you know, actually helpful, applicable knowledge. Instead we have statistical significance and other high falutin’ language that doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans when you’re working with young people.

I know the work of several of the researchers and have long respected them. So I was particularly disappointed to read such a waste of brilliant minds stating the obvious; blatantly reinforcing stereotypes about girls (particularly, African-American girls, particularly African-American girls from lower-income areas); and validating the antiquated notion that we should be measuring how a male-female couple practices safer sex by examining the female partner’s choices and behaviors while completely ignoring the role her male partner plays in these decisions.

Research can be so, so valuable to our work with our service populations-but the time and funding to do meaningful research, particularly program evaluation, is particularly tight today. So to waste these limited resources on a study that reveals absolutely nothing new and provides no additional insight as to how to most effectively serve men and women seeking support and services is an absolute tragedy.

Moral Courage and the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Case

November 22, 2011

I stood on the Trenton train station platform last week waiting for the 6:26 a.m. train to Washington, D.C., and found myself thinking of the 10-year-old boy enduring anal rape by an adult man in the shower in the football facility of Penn State University.

Even in the early morning darkness, I had a clear mental image of the assault described by the assistant coach who witnessed it. I had just walked by a newspaper stand blazing with headlines about the child sexual abuse charges against the man, Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, who has been arraigned on 40 charges related to sex crimes against boys by a grand jury in a 23-page report. University officials first ignored and then lied to the grand jury about their failure to report the child abuse to authorities.

After I boarded the train, my only thought was that it get through Pennsylvania as quickly as possible, so I could turn off the picture of the child rape. I wanted to put the horrific, immoral crime out of my mind, because it made me almost gag or cry whenever I thought of it.

Throughout history, adult men have raped male and female children. It is close to being the most heinous crime, short of taking a child’s life. Sexual abuse survivors suffer bodily invasion, loss of power and trust, and possible lasting pain and sorrow that can destroy positive feelings about sexuality. It was a horrendous story out of Penn State, and it brought back memories of the pervasive rapes by the pedophile Catholic priests.

My head had cleared by the time I arrived in D.C. to attend the 28th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, given annually by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. This year’s award went to Frank Mugisha of Uganda, who the center described as “a leading advocate fighting for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community in Uganda and against the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would make “homosexual activities” punishable by life in prison on the first offense and death sentence for aggravated offenses.”

Photo: Brendan O’Donnell

Photo taken of Frank Mugisha on 14 December 2009 in the House of Parliament in London.

I learned more about Mugisha’s exemplar life and work when he appeared onstage with Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, his daughter, Kerry Kennedy, who is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, and other dignitaries. He looked small and frail, but I soon learned that the only aspect about him that seems diminutive is his height. When Kerry Kennedy detailed why he had received the award, I realized that he had the heart of a lion.

“Frank Mugisha knew at 14 he was gay,” Kennedy said, “and he came out knowing full well that he was taking great personal risk, and he was going to have to suffer harassment and abuse throughout his life if he chose to remain in his homeland.”

She added that the extent of the abuse hurled at sexual minorities in Uganda is unimaginable to people living in a free society. As a result of coming out as a gay man, Mugisha has lost jobs, friends, and is estranged from his family. He was expelled from his homeland because of his advocacy, but chose to return and fight for the rights of sexual minorities — knowing that he could lose his life in the effort.

Uganda is “one of 80 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by death,” Kennedy said. She estimated that while homosexuality is opposed by almost the entire society, of the “32 million people who live in Uganda, about 500,000 are undoubtedly homosexual, but only few people — one of them Frank — are willing to speak for them.”

“Frank told me that he gets up every day in a hostile climate to advocate for these persecuted people, because he believes ‘I have to do what I have to do,’” she said.

This past January, one of the other few people who did speak for gay people’s rights — Mugisha’s colleague David Kato, an advocacy and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) — was brutally murdered in his home.

“Yet Frank continues to courageously provide leadership for the movement in the face of constant death threats and in the aftermath of the ruthless killing,” Kennedy said.

Since 2007, Mugisha has led SMUG, which advocates for LGBTI rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and support for openly gay people in the form of counseling and suicide prevention services. An important aspect of the RFK Human Rights Award is that for the next six years, the center will work with Mugisha, SMUG members, and others to advance the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda.

Not only will Mugisha go home with this beautiful honor, but he also has the promise of resources from a well-recognized nonprofit. Now he is not quite so alone. In fact, Kennedy asked everyone in the audience to stand and join her in a pledge to Mugisha, saying together in one strong voice: “You are not alone.” Chills went down my spine.

Kennedy ended her speech by referring to a lovely Africa proverb: “Plant trees when you are young, so when you are old you will enjoy their shade.” She assured the newly honored Human Rights Award Laureate that with the help of the RFK Center, he would be able to enjoy the shade of the trees they plant together.

The theme of the morning was a simple one: personal moral courage, so fundamental to Robert Kennedy’s beliefs. His daughter mentioned it, as did two other speakers who followed her to the podium: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

In their brief congratulations, both quoted the following words of Robert Kennedy’s, because they applied to Mugisha’s life and work:

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

These words rang in my ears as I took the train home. Unquestionably, every single adult connected with the Penn State sexual assault case failed the moral courage test that Mugisha passes each day of his life in Uganda.

Sandusky’s alleged crimes against young boys go beyond any discussion of morality and courage — and a jury of his peers will make a final determination as to his guilt or innocence. If he lived in Uganda, he probably would be hanged without any sort of a trial, because, as Kennedy told us, “most people there believe that gay men rape teenage boys.”

I wish everyone on the Penn State campus — especially the students who cheered fired head-football coach Joe Paterno — could have listened to Mugisha’s acceptance speech. He said that LGBTI rights are human rights, universal and non-negotiable. He said we must be people of good conscience who stand up and take action when we see something that is terribly wrong and hurtful to others — and that we all must celebrate moral courage wherever and whenever we find it. He assured us that even in Uganda, “Change will come.”

I was fortunate last week to see a personification of moral courage. It made the train ride home — even through Pennsylvania — much easier to bear.

“Moral Courage and the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Case originally appeared on New Jersey Newsroom.”

Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed

October 19, 2011

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?” by Robert George and Melissa Moschella, is not as much about sexuality education as it is an overt example of how deeply the socially-conservative agenda is pervading all aspects of our culture.

This is no accident; it is an intentional, widespread campaign against not only sexual and reproductive health, sexuality education, women’s rights, and the inclusion of LGBTQ youth in anti-bullying measures, but also against the rights of young people to dare to want to access information that will make them educated consumers of the world in which they live.

This campaign started gaining momentum with the Tea Party (you know, the folks who applauded “Let’s hear it for letting someone who doesn’t have health insurance die!”), formerly considered to be more on the fringe, but who are now, inexplicably and horrifyingly, gaining legitimacy.

I’d like to highlight several core elements of social conservative propaganda-some of which appear throughout the piece-that continue to be used to manipulate people into thinking there is a concerted effort being made by educators to contribute, as the authors claim, to “the sexualization of children in our society at younger ages:”

1. Lie blatantly. If history has taught us anything, it’s that social conservatives believe that the end justifies the means. In their view, it is completely appropriate to lie to young people. This is what ignited the years-long battle sexuality education experts have fought to ensure that abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula be, at the very least, medically accurate.  These curricula lie to young people in order to scare and shame them out of having sex (even though research has shown that doing so is woefully ineffective). If in the end, a young person doesn’t have sex, social conservatives claim victory despite the fact that these young people may not have any self-esteem to speak of or know how to practice safer sex in the future.

2. Use fear. Sex ed wasn’t always such a controversial topic to teach, but social conservatives have turned the provision of school-based sexuality education into an adversarial “us against them” debate. They work to terrify parents out of trusting trained educators to provide children with the information they need to make healthy decisions, now and in the future.

In the Times Op-Ed, George and Moschella ask readers to imagine how they would feel if their child had just entered middle school and were provided with sex ed in which he [sic] was “…encouraged to disregard what you told him about sex, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?”

Here they are trying to scare parents into believing that these terrible, awful, amoral educators are trying to undermine your parental authority. The lie inherent in this (see point #1) is that educators are telling young people to ignore what their parents have to say about sexuality.

In fact, the cardinal rule for anyone teaching sex ed to young people is to always encourage them to talk with their parents, caregivers, or other trusted adults in their lives, and to press those adults to do the same, within the context of their own family’s values.

3. Treat young people as idiots. If we do that, then we will be guaranteed to have the “sovereignty” over them that George and Moschella espouse.  For those of us who work with and on behalf of young people, the disenfranchisement of youth that is embraced by social conservatives is particularly infuriating.  The thought is that if young people are ignorant, they will remain dependent upon their parents-and this is as counterproductive for the young person as it is for the parent.

If we do not see young people as inherently smart and strong with great capacity for learning and doing things independently of us, we are not infusing the positive self-esteem and strength they need to be independent beings in the world. Social conservatives think of young people as incapable and needing constant adult supervision and support, and then expect them to be able to navigate the world effectively as adults. This is as ridiculous as teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage and assuming that as soon as people are in a heterosexual marriage that they will miraculously be infused with the full range of knowledge and skills they need to have happy, healthy relationships.  All of this sets young people up for failure from the earliest ages.

As a former college professor, I saw this firsthand when parents would call me to try to get  their child into an already-full class or discuss their child’s grades. I wondered whether these same parents would accompany their adult children to job interviews, help them ask someone out on a date, or be there to negotiate safer sex with a future partner.

Parents have to teach their children how to think for themselves. We are not our children’s friends, we are their parents.  And from the moment we become parents, our job is to help our children eventually become independent from us.

When it comes to sexuality, an oft-quoted phrase that comes from SIECUS is that parents are the primary and most important sexuality educators of their children. But the reality is that far too many parents are simply not equipped to teach their children age- and developmentally-appropriate information about sexuality - any more than they are equipped to teach trigonometry even if they were math whizzes in high school. Giving birth or adopting a child does not automatically make us experts in all of the topics and skills young people need to know to be prepared to navigate the world as adults.  This is why we need to rely on educational, medical, and other professional experts-and, if we are a member of a faith community, our faith leaders-to help us.

Educating young people about sexuality should be seen as a partnership between entities that share the common goal of having them grow into sexually healthy adults, not as a faux struggle between parents and schools.  Yet because of (and only because of) the hyperbolic rhetoric spewed by those like George and Moschella, sex ed continues to be seen as a battle.

This is as counterproductive as it is unhelpful. Young people deserve better, educational professionals deserve better, and parents deserve better.  I call upon us all to reject the rhetoric and focus on helping young people learn the content and skills they need in order to have happy, productive, rich lives.

“Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed” was originally published by RH Reality Check.

Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together

October 7, 2011

Multiple choice testThe first standardized health and sexuality education test for students in the public and charter schools in Washington, D.C., has become a reality-and I am thrilled. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step. I applaud the District of Columbia for taking the first step in the nation to assess what students know-and don’t know- about sexuality topics like contraception and health topics like nutrition, mental health and drug use.

This spring, students in grades 5, 8 and 10 in a district with 75,000 students will be tested for their knowledge on these and similar health-related topics.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years to the date since I wrote a column promoting the idea of a national health education test. In that column, I called for funds to create a standardized national health education test covering a wide range of health-related topics. High school students would be required to pass it in order to graduate.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested that Harvard require passage of the test as part of the admissions process: If the mother-of-all universities had such a requirement, then other universities would probably follow!

Such a test would be a win-win for kids and adults: It would get health education out of the periphery of the school curriculum, where it languishes, and give it the important role that it needs to promote lifelong wellness. What’s more, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and teens would take health education more seriously if it were a subject students would be tested on. And although certainly not a magic bullet, good information conveyed by good instruction is fundamental to behavior change. Finally, test results might prod school districts to improve woefully deficient health and sexuality education programs.

I hadn’t thought much about my idea until a colleague forwarded this Washington Post article. The headline immediately caught my attention: “D.C. schools prepare for the nation’s first sex-education standardized testing.” Well, I thought, it’s not a national test, but maybe the way to get there is state by state by state.

The health and sex ed questions will be multiple choice and skills based rather than only soliciting correct information. For example, if there is a question about condoms, students at the 10th grade level most likely would be asked to make or check a list of the correct steps from purchasing a package of condoms to using one.

For my original piece, I spoke to Nancy Hudson, a senior associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D. C. Hudson works for the Health Education Assessment Project (HEAP) whose mission is “to develop effective standards-based health education resources to improve health literacy through improved instruction.”

“We have over 1,900 assessment items to work with in constructing a test, and they are free to any state asking to use them. The D. C. sex ed assessments uses many of these 1,900 items which were tested for validity and reliability that are two essentials in school testing,” explains Hudson.

Obviously, there are many ways to skin the sex-education standardized test cat at the state level, and the D.C. schools have focused on one way: inserting questions in the general assessment tests of other subjects, such as reading and math, which are administered for a two-week period in the spring.

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a community health education nonprofit that works to promote sexuality and HIV education in the D.C. public schools [link to: http://metroteenaids.org/], was one of the driving forces behind the development of the tests.

Tenner told me that he enthusiastically approves of the new test, agreeing that in education “what gets measured gets done.” He said that he and others in the city who advocated for inserting the questions in the assessments argued that “healthy kids learn better, healthy kids stay in school and don’t drop out, and healthy kids complete more grades in school and college so they can get better jobs.”

It bothers Tenner that the media and opponents have already labeled the new assessment “the sex test.” He said that opponents argue that “if kids can’t learn to read, why should they learn about sex.” I suggested a retort that I often used to stop this argument in its tracks: “Use age-appropriate materials about sexual issues with kids, and they might improve their reading.” He liked it.

Now that D.C. has taken the all-important first step, perhaps New Jersey will step up and become the second state to consider using a statewide standardized sexuality education test. The cost of preparing the tests for New Jersey-which Tom Ewing, the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS’s) director of external relations, estimated at $250,000 two years ago when I spoke to him-would now be greatly reduced if we were to use the test items from D.C.

Local schools boards in the strapped cities might mention the expense of adapting and giving the test as reasons for not doing it. Therefore, it might be better to have the State Board of Education interested in the issue and work with the Commissioner and possibly the Commissioner of Health to find monies to pay for a statewide assessment.

I’ve been warned that joining sexuality education with standardized testing is a toxic brew that will incur the wrath of people opposed to both ideas. But we’ll never know what a good idea this might be unless we give it a try.

Teaching to the test on this subject makes good sense.

Ewing of ETS told me it would take about 18 months to develop a statewide test. In the meantime, let’s promote some new words to a familiar old adage: “Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together.”

Soon.

No Co-Pays for Women’s Health Care: Better But Not Perfect

August 9, 2011

Birth controlIn a groundbreaking move, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that, as part of the Affordable Care Act, it would for the first time ever require new health insurance plans to include coverage for the costs of a wide range of preventive health services for women without co-pays. At Answer, we were particularly delighted to see sexually transmitted disease (STD) counseling, HIV counseling and testing, and FDA-approved contraceptive methods included on the list of preventive services. Finally, an administration that has elevated the health needs of women and their families to where it needs to be!

I truly do believe this decision is unprecedented. At the same time, however, having worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly 25 years, my social justice autopilot is permanently set on “who’s missing?” So when I read the announcement, the first question that came to my mind was, “What about all the people who do not have health insurance?”

In 2010, 39 percent of people ages 64 and younger had no health insurance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is the highest rate since 1997. That translates to roughly 48 million people. Hispanic and African-American individuals were, as always, disproportionately represented among those who did not have insurance. And when the CDC says “uninsured,” that means no private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, state-sponsored or other government-sponsored health plan or military plan. Unfortunately, none of these people would benefit from the Affordable Care Act’s provision.

Historically, uninsured individuals could go to their local family planning organization for their health care needs, but not any more. Not when more and more state governments continue to irresponsibly eviscerate the funding budgets for those organizations, many of which are the only places women and men go to for their health needs. This remains one of the biggest oversights and tragedies of the conservative agenda to eliminate family planning services. In doing so, they are often eliminating the only health care some people will ever have access to or receive. And the fewer preventive services that are available, the higher the cost down the line for treatment and care for the illnesses that can result—for women AND men. See, according to the HHS announcement, “Women are more likely to need preventive health care services.” But according to the CDC, boys and men are more likely than girls and women to be uninsured. This issue affects everyone, regardless of gender or age.

So as we celebrate this bold move—and truly, we must—we cannot rest on our laurels for very long. We must remember that well-woman visits are invaluable for early detection, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses for which the uninsured remain disproportionately at risk simply because they do not have access to these services. We must remember that at the same time that well-woman visits are imperative, so too are preventive and well-care services for boys and men. And in the same breath with which we celebrate victories like this, we need to remember those who are habitually forgotten and neglected, and whose lives can be made or broken based on politics and reckless cuts to invaluable programs and services.

Abstinence Only Until Marriage? Basta Cosi…

July 28, 2011

Back in 2008 when Bristol Palin “lost her abstinence,” her mom Sarah was a staunch supporter of abstinence-only-until-marriage “education.” So when unmarried Bristol turned up pregnant, her mother did a very effective job of denying the reality that not only do abstinence-only-until-marriage programs not work, but they also are, as Bristol herself said, “unrealistic.” Now, Palin’s son Track has a wife of two months, who is visibly pregnant, which means that she became pregnant before the wedding. (Clutch the pearls!) Yet Grandma Palin remains strongly opposed to comprehensive sexuality education. And she is not alone in her denial, her resistance or her hypocrisy.

Palin's views on sexuality education

I don’t know what is more troublesome: the idea that social conservatives continue to push for the propagation and funding of these programs that have absolutely no research demonstrating any long-term effectiveness; the fact that the federal government continues to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs (over $1 billion to date); or the “holier-than-thou” attitude that empowers conservative politicians to publicly and unapologetically tell the country how we should live our lives (until they or a member of their family contradict the party line and suddenly, conveniently, the entire issue becomes “a matter of privacy”). It makes me think of a young child being told by her parent, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That doesn’t fly with young people about anything, especially something as significant to them as sex and sexuality. And by withholding life-enhancing, sometimes lifesaving, information from young people, we are setting them up for unhealthy interactions with unpredictable outcomes.

What if we were to acknowledge the reality that some people choose to wait to have sex until they are married, and some do not? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, because in acknowledging that, we would need to acknowledge some concepts that alternately terrify or are irrelevant to social conservatives. For example, we’d need to acknowledge that not everyone who is in a sexual relationship is heterosexual and therefore “until marriage” is an exclusionary time frame. We would need to acknowledge that young people can and do make decisions for themselves, including decisions about sexuality. We would need to acknowledge that, as parents, one of our most important jobs is to talk with our children about sexuality from the very youngest ages and keep talking about it with them through their lives—and that means talking about much more than telling our kids to “just say no.” And we would need to acknowledge that, since far too many parents feel uncomfortable with or unprepared to discuss sexuality, they need the support of educational professionals to teach comprehensive sexuality education at school. That means teaching not only about abstinence, but also about contraception, safer sex and much more.

Enough excuses. Enough faux moralism. As my late grandmother would say, “Basta cosi.” Enough is enough.